Top Tips to Refocus Attention and Concentration from a Neuropsychologist
- Have a Preparation stage, or pre-performance routine:
Create a mental and physical environment that helps you focus. In sports performance coaching, athletes are taught to filter out 2 levels:
External distractions: in sports this looks like official making a bad call, poor field conditions, hostile crowds. In life, this looks like filtering out external noise…
Internal distractions: in sports this looks like removing negative self-talk, dwelling on a previous mistake.
2. What would you have to do in this room to filter out both levels? Some people will do an environment scan first, so they can move to quieting the internal stuff.
Pre-performance routines assist athletes relax by providing a sense of familiarity which helps remind them this is just another shot, serve, race, etc. This helps us the same way when we approach school or work tasks.
PAY ATTENTION TO ATTENTION
2b. If you are reading, you can also mark the top of the page using “tic marks” every time you break concentration, and then bring your attention back to the page or task at hand.
- Note strategies you use to bring your attention back.
- Use this to identify how long it takes before you need a micro-break.
- Most people find that after every 5-10 minutes or 20 “tic marks” it helps focus to take a micro-break. This is called pacing.
- Focus more on returning to the present than staying with the present.
- When you’re doing this, don’t judge your attention as good or bad (NOT “What’s wrong with me, I can’t even focus for five minutes!!!”); just be curious about how your mind works
2c. “Parking” your thoughts: quickly write down distracting thoughts in a notebook you can come back to (this helps when you’re doing a task and you can’t focus because of competing thoughts). Set aside time daily to deal with it. This can work well at night when you can’t sleep because your mind is racing. Write a Key Word for each distracting thought, to remind you to come back to it.
Notice where your eyes are orienting: If you notice that your eyes have moved from the speaker or book, that might cue you that you are not orienting/paying attention; always keep your eye on your attention target.
- Use, Stop, Relax, Refocus (“SRR”) when you catch your mind wandering:
- Stop forward movement. Note where your thoughts were wandering for 5 seconds, but don’t fight it.
- Some people practice “stopping” at set intervals, to check whether they are on track.
Relax: This is like a 30-second recovery time when you’re running.
Let go of stress about the fact that you’re off track. Breathe.
Refocus: Ask the 3 questions:
- What am I currently doing?
- What was I doing before this?
- What was I thinking I would do next? What am I trying to achieve?
3. Do something subtle to release your restlessness: Shift position while taking several deep breaths in your seat regularly. Vary your posture from seated to standing position, keep moving, or do some brief physical activity to help keep sending more oxygen to your brain for alertness.
4. Straighten your back or open your eyes wider to increase alertness.
5. Some people will squeeze a stress ball or their hands; some will touch their tongue to the roof of their mouth – anything to keep you with what you’re working on right now.
6. Say or write/post “Am I Here?” or “What is my target activity?” to redirect your focus…if you post, when your eyes wander, you’ll see it. Reminds you to come back to the present moment when you are distracted.
7. Picture subtitles under the person’s head when they’re talking so you can pay attention to them.
8. Talk to yourself out loud (or quietly to yourself):
- When you walk into a room so you are tracking what you are doing (and so you don’t forget why you went in there).
- When you are fixing something repeat the steps of the activity to yourself as you complete them
- When you are trying to learn a sequence or series of steps
- Talk to yourself about your progress
9. The Godfather rule: Make your mind a deal it can’t refuse….bribe yourself that if you focus now, you will reward yourself later. Works best if the reward is asap.
10. The “Five More” Rule: If you are losing focus, say “just 5 more minutes.” Read FIVE MORE pages. Work FIVE MORE minutes. Something about assigning Start and Stop parameters is extremely helpful for focus.
11. Keep a “this mile only” mentality: Break a task into simpler parts, and complete one step at a time so you can stay focused. (Example: cleaning your room: you need to break it down into steps, or it’s overwhelming).
TIP: Think about a long distance run and the “this mile only” mentality while you’re running that mile. Just think about that part of the task while you’re completing it.
12. When you are about to procrastinate, ask the 3 questions:
- Do I want it done so it’s not on my mind?
- Will it be easier later?
- How will I feel when this is done?
13. Use visualization: Picture your mind as a camera and that you are switching to telephoto lens when you focus on something.
Picture your restlessness like a wave you can surf. See if you can watch it rise up, crest, then fall. Find ways to break down what you’re hearing or seeing into 1-4 chunks. People get distracted because they try to take in too many chunks at a time.
14. Offer your opinion or track your opinion on what is being read or discussed. This keeps you engaged so you can focus.
15. When getting distracted by upsetting feelings, rather than pushing them away or being overwhelmed, some people pay attention to how their body feels when they are upset. It keeps their focus on the “here and now” and helps them to not automatically react. Your body, breath, or sounds are major “anchors” that bring you back to the present.
16. Tell yourself, “I notice restlessness” instead of “I AM restless.” You are then investigating the restlessness in a non-reactive way.
17. Work at peak times of alertness for you. What was your peak time during the day today? What contributed to that? How can you increase that experience?
18. Summarize what the other person said or ask questions for clarification OR make eye contact (helps you pay attention to what they are saying).
19. Picture a flashlight, strobe light, or spotlight shining on what you want to focus on.